As he considers appealing court limits on civil forfeiture, Philly DA Williams defends policy

 Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams says he supports civil forfeiture as a tool of law enforcement. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams says he supports civil forfeiture as a tool of law enforcement. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In the wake of a Pennsylvania appeals court ruling that would limit its use, District Attorney Seth Williams defended the controversial practice known as “civil forfeiture.”

But, Williams added, the city does need to do more to ensure that the process doesn’t violate Philadelphians’ civil rights.

“Taking away the assets of criminal behavior has long been understood as a crime-prevention tool,” Williams said in an interview Wednesday. “We have to do a better job that due process is ensured to all.”

Under current statute, law enforcement officials can seize property connected to alleged criminal activity, even when the property owner had nothing to do with the crime. This can include cash, vehicles, and real estate.

Philadelphia’s aggressive use of the practice has drawn criticism locally and nationally, and from the left and right sides of the political spectrum.

The city has been featured unflatteringly on the subject in the New Yorker magazine and John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” television program. The free-market Institute for Justice, based in Washington, D.C., recently brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of several homeowners who stood to lose their property because of crimes allegedly committed by their children or spouses.

And this week Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court sought to put strict new limits on civil forfeitures, creating new rules of evidence to govern what can be seized from whom, under what circumstances.

The decision was driven by a case in which Philadelphia officials seized a woman’s home after her son was charged with selling small amounts of marijuana, unbeknown to her.

Williams said he’s still evaluating the court’s new ruling and what it means for his office. But he said most critics of the policy aren’t in tune with the needs of Philadelphia’s crime-ridden communities,  where properties are frequently transformed into crack dens and what he called “houses of ill repute.”

“If somebody comes into Philadelphia from Lower Merion in his family Volvo to get a prostitute, it would help us to deter crime if he had to call his wife and say, ‘You know what? The Volvo was seized … because I was getting a prostitute in North Philadelphia,'” Williams said.

Critics say that civil forfeiture policies violate the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” because property can be taken from those who are never charged – much less convicted – of a crime.

Williams says the intention is not to take property from people who truly have no criminal involvement.

But, he added, you can’t always believe the homeowners who say they didn’t know that their children were dealing drugs.

“Was this an owner who didn’t know — or was this an owner who has a new flat-screen TV because her grandson was selling crack?” Williams said. “It’s our job, my job, to make sure we can remove blight without removing the assets of those who are purely innocent.”

Altogether, civil forfeiture of cash, cars and homes brings the city about $6 million a year in revenue. Williams says that about 60 percent of that goes to the police department, with most of the rest going to his office. The city has until the end of January to appeal the Commonwealth Court’s ruling.

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